High stakes of the recount: swift passage of Obama’s economic plan

When Minnesota started the recount for its hotly contested U.S. Senate seat last month, Capitol Hill offered a reasonably generous time frame. Congress was expected to lumber through a typical post-election slowdown and take the first few weeks of 2009 to gear up for action.

Last week, though, President-elect Barack Obama declared that the work of rescuing the economy “starts today,” and made the extraordinary move of setting his economic agenda rolling weeks before he takes office.

Now, congressional leaders are rushing to fast-track critical decisions regarding the best way to boost the country out of its economic crisis.

“There is a lot of pressure to get moving,” said David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and an expert on Congress. “He made it very clear that he wants to pass this stimulus package as quickly as possible.”

David Canon
Courtesy of UW-Madison
David Canon

In other words, the train for the 111th Congress is starting its engines to bolt out of the station early. And no one has a ticket to sit in one of Minnesota’s Senate seats. Whether it is the Republican incumbent Norm Coleman or his Democratic challenger Al Franken could make a vast difference on the particulars of the legislation.

Already late
If Minnesota’s Senate race were decided on Dec. 19, when the State Canvassing Board hopes to finish reviewing ballots challenged during the recount, the winner already would be coming late to the work of securing seats on key committees and forming coalitions with like-minded colleagues on contentious issues.

At this point, though, there is little chance the Canvassing Board’s recount will end the fight for the seat. It almost surely will move to the courts, said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who teaches classes on election law and the legislative process.

If one candidate somehow emerged from the recount several thousand votes ahead, that could end the contest, Schultz said.

“But I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I don’t think you are going to see either one of them pull way out in front.”

The incentive for both sides to dig in for an entrenched court battle could expand enormously after a runoff election on Tuesday for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Democrats would control 59 votes in the Senate if Democratic challenger Jim Martin defeats Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss. That means a Franken victory in Minnesota could give the Democrats the magic 60-vote majority that would enable them to block Republican filibusters and move legislation swiftly.

David Schultz
Courtesy of Hamline University
David Schultz

“If Jim Martin takes Georgia, everything goes crazy here,” Schultz said. “Every incentive to settle is over at that point because now you are battling for the real control of the U.S. Senate. …  The most fascinating political conversations come after Tuesday.”

Thus, the battle for the Minnesota seat could spill into 2009. And Minnesota’s senator could miss the chance to play a role in some of the most important decisions Congress will take in the lifetimes of many Americans.

Setting the table
The next Congress convenes two weeks before Obama is sworn into office. And the Democrats’ who control both houses want to have a major economic stimulus bill ready for Obama to sign Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

When President Bush took office, the House didn’t even cast its first vote until Jan. 30, according to CQPolitics.

So the Democrats have taken on a tall order. To fill it, congressional leaders will “set the table” in the final weeks of this year with legislation that can be moved quickly in January and ready for Obama’s signature as his first act in office, predicted Norman Ornstein, an expert observer of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Norman Ornstein
Courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute
Norman Ornstein

To that end, Obama’s emissaries already are meeting with every congressional committee chair, the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend. “And Obama, who is running the transition from his home base in Chicago, has been working the phones,” the Times said.

David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, already is drafting job-creating legislation and Ways and Means Committee leaders are working on a tax-cut measure.

Which arm to twist?
Meanwhile, passing legislation of such magnitude inevitably requires a frenzy of behind-the-scenes vote counting and arm twisting.

Which arms do Senate leaders twist in Minnesota? This is where the Coleman-Franken difference becomes crucial.

Franken could be expected to vote with the Democrats. Unless they win their 60-vote majority, they obviously will need at least a few Republicans to pass the legislation.

And they’re likely to get them eventually. After a month of frightening gyrations in the stock market, Ornstein predicted that as many as half of the Senate Republicans will go along at some point with an Obama-driven economic stimulus package.

“There is a growing sense of alarm,” he said.

But we should expect the Republicans to stand their ground on many of the particulars as bills take shape.

The last time Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress was in 1993 when President Bill Clinton took office. Although they were outnumbered, the Republicans showed impressive discipline and solidity, holding their ranks together against Clinton’s major initiatives.

They knocked down Clinton’s overhaul of the health care system and they came close to defeating the landmark 1993 budget which turned the corner on deficit spending but also raised taxes.

Could they do it again?

“This is a very different time,” said Canon at the University of Wisconsin. “You have a situation now where the federal government is doing things under a Republican president that would have been called socialism two years ago…. The climate has changed so much that there is widespread agreement something quite dramatic needs to be done.”

Still, GOP leaders have signaled that their cooperation cannot be taken for granted.

The Senate would be crippled without robust debate and amendments challenging the details of bills, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a letter sent Nov. 21 to the Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.  

“The Republican Conference intends to protect the Senate’s history of full and open consideration of major legislation, which includes a fair amendment process and the opportunity for debate,” the letter said.

It’s a safe bet that the Democrats will need to woo and bargain for every Republican vote they pull to their side.

Without clear details available to date on Obama’s stimulus plan, Coleman is making skeptical noises.

“He has deep reservations about any proposal that just increases spending,” said his spokesman Leroy Coleman. “He has said we have to move forward in a fiscally responsible manner … we cannot spend our way to economic recovery. He is saying, ‘Let’s move forward but make sure whatever policies we put in place will bring about better days and won’t leave our children with insurmountable debt.'”

Breaking the log jam
As the stakes rise on Capitol Hill, so will the pressure to break the Minnesota logjam. Gov. Tim Pawlenty could fill the vacancy by appointing a temporary senator, presumably Coleman, his fellow Republican, Schultz said. But the Senate has the power to reject Pawlenty’s choice.

“This would set up a major constitutional battle and a major political battle,” Schultz said. “We would be on completely on new ground at that point.”

If you thought this race was interesting so far, just wait.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Robb Mitchell on 12/01/2008 - 01:05 pm.

    In this analysis I think you are placing too much importance on a “fillbuster majority” and not the kind of working coalitions most, if not all Presidents need to pass their economic and foreign policy agenda from one year to the next.

    First, the “one vote” you put such extraordinary emphasis on simple is the 60th Democrat vote. Obama doesn’t need a block of all 60 votes in that chamber to push economic stimulus or significant reforms in policy.

    Second, to get Democrats in any body to vote in complete unison and lock step is a bit of an hilarious notion. There are a large number of Liberal Democrats that will want Obama to pursue an aggressive timetable for change on health care, ending the war, job creation, and social programs that cost money long neglected by Republcians. More than likely, Obama’s working majority will consist of Demorcats and Republicans, especially in the early days and in response to the economic crisis the nation is faced with today.

    I do agree with David Canon that the rules of the game have radically shifted with the Bush administration pursuing policies for the past eight years that completely contradict traditional values of small restrained federal government, fighting wars with clear objectives and exit-strategies, and sound fiscal management and responsibility to the taxpayers.

    As for the long-term, we’ll still have to see how Obama’s polices will be shaped and how current events and the tides of history will influence the new President as well as the Congressional bodies. But I think you are vastly over-counting the historical importance of Minnesota’s one Senate seat embroiled in the recount.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/01/2008 - 08:32 pm.

    Robb Mitchell’s comments are right on: the Republicans are much weakened and are not the tyrannical bunch we’ve seen in action in the last 14 years. But there is a huge stumbling block: in order to get the economy back on track, money will have to be raised, and instead of just continuing the borrow and spend policies of the past eight years, the Dems will want eventually to raise taxes on the top tier of tax-payers. That will not go down easily with the “Tax Avoiders” League. We can’t rely on Senator Lieberman to go along with the Democrats, though he owes Obama at least that much.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 12/01/2008 - 11:08 pm.

    The comment on Lieberman is really fighting last year’s battles. Lieberman is probably more reliable on a cloture vote than some Democrats.

    It only takes 51 votes to pass something. The only way the Republicans could block Obama’s economic program is a filibuster. And that is very unlikely at this point, to say the least. Even attempting it in face of the economic crisis would be political suicide. They would have no chance of getting the remaining moderate Republicans to support it.

    This is also very likely moot. Martin’s chances of winning are remote. Which might actually make the Minnesota race even more important. The difference is between needing one Republican and two. Which means it doubles the Republican votes needed to break a filibuster.

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